Reverend Ulf Ekman is a man with a mission. This Swedish pastor believes Christians should have a positive attitude toward Israel and the Jews, and is passionately preaching that message.
Besides his vast educational enterprises throughout the Christian world, for over 20 years Ekman has been leading groups totalling over 13,000 on Christian-Zionism-oriented tours of Israel, offering a taste of “not only what happened here, but also what is happening here today,” as he recently explained in Jerusalem a day before the arrival of this year’s group.
The nine-day pilgrimage which took place at the beginning of September brought some 1,500 church leaders and laymen to the Holy Land, and was the largest such group ever, with participants from 35 countries.
Many are “blown over,” says Ekman, when they actually visit sites they’ve read, heard and at times dreamt about all their lives, including the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The group also underwent baptism at the Yardenit site on the Jordan River, conducted a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony at the Western Wall, and paid a somber visit to Yad Vashem.
“We have a very basic statement,” Ekman says of the Uppsala-based Evangelical-Charismatic group Word of Life (WOL), which he founded in 1983. “We say we want to bring Christians to Israel and Israel to Christians, furthering the understanding of why this nation is here, why it needs to be here, and then help Christians fight anti- Semitism, to better understand the roots of anti-Semitism, how it works and how it kicks in, and also to promote aliya” among those from the Former Soviet Union.
“No serious-minded Christian can be an anti-Semite,” says Ekman. “It’s absolutely impossible; it doesn’t match in any way or form. But it needs to be brought forth, and this is what we put the emphasis on over the years. I’m amazed at the results.”
The European mind-set, however, does not always subscribe to what Ekman sees as the fundamental love owed to Israel and its people, not only due to ancient history and theology, but also as a result of simple decency. “Does Israel have a right to exist in the Middle East? Is anti-Semitism right or wrong? These are moral issues, albeit with political aspects,” Ekman says.
The discrepancy between his sentiment and what appears to be the European tendency is in part born of the fact that “the understanding of Israel is very limited,” Ekman says, using Scandinavia as an example of a region where the media do not present balanced reports of the Mideast, and where it has become more politically convenient to side with the Arabs and the growing Muslim populace. “We also have people from Eastern Europe, from countries with more history of anti-Semitism. We are still very much involved there in the years after the Iron Curtain fell. One of the things we did was travel into the Former Soviet Union to lecture about anti-Semitism.
It was amazing to see the ignorance about it. It has been quite interesting to see from our perspective the people we’ve been in contact with – many many thousands over the years – to see the turn in their hearts.”
THE term “Christian-Zionism” may have an unfamiliar or even dissonant timbre to some ears, but for Ekman it encompasses “the indebtedness and thankfulness” Christians ought to have to the People of Israel.
“Where does our faith come from? Where are the Jewish people in all this? Where did we get our Bible from?” Ekman says. “It all goes back to the Jewish people. And Jesus in the Gospel of John says: ‘Salvation comes from the Jews.’ For some Christians, this is a shocking scripture,” Ekman notes.
“Which inspires us to help Christians understand the need of aliya, the right of Israel to exist today and the importance of combatting anti-Semitism.”
On top of bringing Christians to the Holy Land, WOL has been active in helping Jews from the Former Soviet Union find their way to Israel. Since its inception in 1993, Operation Jabotinsky, named after the Revisionist leader famous for his grave concern for the well-being of Jewish communities in pre-Holocaust Europe, has helped over 18,000 FSU immigrants make Israel their home, “escaping anti- Semitism and its vicious manifestations” by providing information and funds in conjunction with the Jewish Agency.
Besides plane tickets, WOL also utilized an old troop transport ship to bring 1,321 passengers in 14 voyages from the FSU beginning in 1995, when a civil war with Georgia trapped a group of Abkhazian Jews seeking a way out of their former country. Another facet of WOL’s work in the FSU is teaching the churches there about the Holocaust, Israel and its regional conflicts, stressing the need to resist anti- Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Among the tenets of Operation Jabotinsky is the principle that “helping Jews home to Israel is strictly humanitarian and not evangelistic,” as the mission announcement states. Which conjures the Jewish apprehension about Christian Zionism.
A long and painful history of European hostility has sadly well acquainted Jews with Christian animosity. That can help explain why some Jews, particularly Israeli-born Jews less familiar with the infinite nuances of the Christian world, are frankly suspicious of congregations and movements such as Ekman’s.
Are the ulterior motives of these Christian groups, exuberantly positive toward Israel and the Jews – indeed on a par with the Jewish people themselves when it comes to their well-being – an elaborate scheme to enhance the second coming of Jesus, following which Jews will become Christians? Ekman is naturally wellacquainted with that sentiment.
“I believe you’re here,” he says of the Jewish people’s presence in Israel, “and you’re here to stay. I believe you’re entitled to live here, and that it’s very important for many reasons, and of course also as a Christian I see it as the fulfillment of biblical prophesy. But it’s not one or the other,” he says of the reasons he supports Israel.
The biblical prophesies of the return of Israel to Zion are only part of the story for Christians, The Jerusalem Post interjects.
“I talk about prophesies when I meet [Jewish] friends here who are religious Zionists. They read the same scriptures, they read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea,” Ekman says.
For the Jews, that is where the prophesies end, while the Christians’ continue into the New Testament, The Jerusalem Post reiterates.
“But the strong prophesies are in the Tanach,” Ekman says, using the Hebrew acronym for the Old Testament. “So basically what we have is an undergirding” for the support of Israel in the prophesies, not unlike the way secular Zionist leaders such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky drew on the Bible in their ideology.”
“This is where the prophets lived,” Ekman says in the lobby of his Jerusalem hotel. “This is where the kings lived. This is where Abraham walked. This is the land God promised you. I believe that. How it looks and how it should be, that’s another thing. I’m talking about a basic pattern here, that’s interwoven into all of Jewish life. You come back to the words the Almighty spoke to Abraham, to give him a son, a land, and turn him into a people. To me it’s not poetry but reality.”
Also real to Ekman is the indebtedness he as a Christian owes to the Jews, through whom “the Lord gave revelation, scriptures, and our Messiah… There is a connection here that western culture has severed. There is also a connection that secularism has severed. We have a debt, we understand,” he says of the respect he believes is due to the Jews.
“This is not eschatological overload,” Ekman insists. “This is just basic common sense.”
Which raises the question of how so many Christian churches lack that sound judgement. Ekman’s groups are composed of Protestants, who give the scriptures much importance, and which probably contributes to the pro- Israel sentiments of such denominations.
What about Roman Catholicism? “To put it in a positive way, the Catholic Church has done a lot of things to reverse [anti-Semitic trends] from the Second Vatican Council and on. Probably some of the clearest religious statements ever made by any Christian denomination were made by the Catholic Church.”
The understanding of the need to “go back to the Jewish roots, grasp where our faith actually came from and what the Judeo-Christian heritage really is” is more prevalent in newer Protestant circles, Ekman says. “Mainline Protestants also need to make such statements [against anti-Semitism],” he argues.
One needn’t look far for Protestant anti-Jewish sentiment; Martin Luther himself was famously anti-Semitic, Ekman acknowledges. This might be the result of “Replacement Theology,” Ekman proposes, but agrees that such a move wouldn’t be necessary, as Luther’s reformation was against the Catholic Church, not Judaism.
“There were probably more personal reasons,” Ekman notes, adding he’s not an expert on the subject.
There are some 35,000 different Protestant denominations, not to mention many other churches, so the obvious diversity is applicable in the differing attitudes to Israel. But Ekman would like to share his take on the People of Israel with every believing Christian.
“Appreciation of the scriptures arouses love of the Jewish people; there’s no way we can appreciate scripture without having a great respect for the Jewish people. The historical line is very important. If you cut off the historical line… that’s a form of post-modernism that cuts itself off from the roots,” he says. “The roots are very important, in the sense that we are coming from somewhere. And if we don’t understand where we’re coming from, we’ll have no idea where we’re headed.”
This clear sense of orientation needn’t lead Ekman to a collision with the interests of a Jewish Israel over the aforementioned differing takes. He seeks “a form of basic understanding – where can we agree. When it comes to the difference in understanding who the Messiah is – like Teddy Kollek once said, when he comes to Jerusalem, I’m going to ask him whether he’s been here before.”
“But the main point,” Ekman stresses, “is that Christian groups can be strong allies of Israel. What we need to find is the common denominator… places where we walk the same ground.”
Ekman recalls a meeting with a senior Israeli official in a Stockholm hotel who looked at him and asked why he was really doing this. “I said, well, I don’t know how to say it, but there was once a Jew who helped me. So I feel kinda obliged.”